Two Remarkable Books We Hardly Know

By John Hertz: (reprinted from No Direction Home 5) Fred Waitzkin’s Mortal Games (1993) is about Garry Kasparov (1963- ), particularly his 1990 World Championship match with Anatoly Karpov (1951- ) – their fifth and last – which Kasparov won by one point, 12 1/2 – 11 1/2. Writing about chess is hard. The topic is abstract. I’ve recommended The Kings of New York (M. Weinreb, 2007), a year with a Brooklyn high-school chess team, by a sports writer. Nabokov’s novel The Defense (1930) is by one of the greatest authors in Russian or English, a translator, a poet. There’s The Master of Go (Kawabata Y., 1951; i.e. the game known in Japan as go), which its author thought his finest work. Anyway, Kasparov called for a time-out after Game 20; Karpov called for a time-out after Game 21; and (Mortal, p. 231)

On Saturday, December 22, I came to Kasparov’s house…. Garry had spent the day reading Master and Margarita [1940] by Mikhail Bulgakov. It was his favorite novel and he had read it five or six times. He read passages of it aloud to Masha [Maria Arapova, his first wife], while Beethoven played from the stereo.

I took this as a cue from the Cosmic Joker to read The Master and Margarita. I got the Pevear & Volkhonsky tr. 1997 (rev. 2016). Pevear’s Introduction says (pp. xv-xvi, xxii),

Mikhail Bulgakov worked on this luminous book throughout one of the darkest decades of the century. His last revisions were dictated to his wife a few weeks before his death in 1940 at the age of forty-nine…. Another twenty-six years had to pass before…. The monthly magazine Moskva, otherwise a rather cautious and quiet publication, carried the first part … November 1966…. The 150,000 copies sold out within hours…. second part appeared … January 1967…. Bulgakov was known…. But, outside a very small group, the existence of The Master … was completely unexpected…. a major novel, the author’s crowning work.

Ellena Proffer’s 1984 biography Bulgakov says (pp. 525, 531, 557),

Bulgakov’s last novel is … ambitious…. [he] felt free to create fantastic characters and place them in familiar surroundings, to risk his talent in retelling a sacred story, and to describe … the devil. Ignoring the danger of writing about a writer, Bulgakov superbly demonstrates that … the Master is indeed a great writer, by showing us his novel about Pilate…. satire, realism, and fantasy … [The Master is] an elaborate network in which virtually all characters and events are interdependent…. Margarita, not the Master, allies herself with the devil…. in this seemingly Faustian work there are no true Faust figures…. all the Faustian references [are] set decoration.

A cue for getting around to another book came while I was looking up something else in A Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction (B. Searles, M. Last, B. Meacham & M. Franklin, 1979).

William Hope Hodgson [1877-1918] wrote one extraordinary novel which assures him a special place in science fiction…. The Night Land [1912] … hair-raising … vision of the future … a stranger one has never been conceived. The land is dark. The sun is dead. [From] an eight-mile-high pyramid…. One man sets out to rescue whom he can. The entire novel, of 200,000 words [the Guide’s emphasis], is a minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow account of that journey.

Not the least merit of this indeed very strange book is the author’s achievement in maintaining his focus and our attention over, under, around, and through detail other stories omit, so that they leave us to wonder, however engaged with their artistic success, “How did he get there?” And too this author, though filling his tale with event, eschews coruscation; even the drama, and there is much, is shown to us minutely — as indeed a protagonist meets it. This is an almost molecular story – writing which, borrowing from Gelett Burgess (1866-1951), is hard as the deuce, that’s what!

3 thoughts on “Two Remarkable Books We Hardly Know

  1. But I keep wanting a mash-up with Tepper, Marianne, the Master, and Margarita

  2. The Master of Go and The Lord of the Rings are books I reread every few years – and I just realized that they are both elegies for worlds that are coming to an end.

    (Certainly people still play go! But the cultural institutions that surrounded it during the shogunate were moribund by the time of the Shusai-Kitani game, and essentially died along with Shusai – and Kitani Minoru was one of the architects of the ways that followed them.)

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